The Swastika. Background of current debate

A series of misunderstandings arose around the swastika both on the side of the opponents and the supporters. The whole debate seems to be often suffering from this because on the one hand there are those who see – and want to see – the swastika only (or at least primarily) as a Nazi symbol, and on  the other there are those for whom it is a symbol of almost everything from the past, only not of Nazism. However, the reality is that the swastika has become – whether one wants it or not – a symbol of a whole plentitude of things which sometimes are completely different and even contradictory.

a lead coin from Sri Lanka, from approx. beginning of our era

Distortion of history of the swastika is now not only the work of its opponents but, in a way, also of its supporters. Today’s supporters who want to restore the “true meaning” of the symbol sometimes get confused as to what the real meaning is because, in the many thousands of years of existence, it has acquired a large number of meanings. Perhaps you still remember those sometimes  ridiculous  arguments about whether a left-facing swastika is “good” while a right- facing one is “evil” just as if it’s arms bent in this or another direction  could decide  about  anything. This argument was mainly used by defenders of the swastika who  argued that the swastika with it’s arms bent to the left (as the letter “Z”) is good, “Buddhist” and peaceful, while the arms bent in the opposite direction (like in the Nazi swastika) would in turn be “inappropriate” and “bad”. This thesis gets shattered to ashes and dust when one just looks at the form of swastika in the Far East, which looks identical to the Nazi one and has similar arm length proportions…

Indo-Parthian coin, minted by the so-called Parata Rajas, 1st century AD

Untrue here, even, is the thesis according to which  the eastern  right-facing swastika is only a result of the impact of European scholarship of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The examples of coins, presented here, from that region of the world and from the opening centuries of our era expose this claim as completely false. The Ceylonian lead coin with a swastika comes from the era of thekingdom ofAnuradhapura, which existed inSri Lanka between the years 437 BC – 1017 AD. The swastika was a symbol of the kingdom and  appeared on the royal banners  early in that era. For the sake of clarification of the second example, the so-called Parata Rajas were governors of the Partho -Indian region on the border between today’sPakistan andIndia in the period from 1 to 3 century AD.

In Europe, the right-facing swastika appeared very often. This is confirmed, among other things, by coins minted at that time. In general,  coins appear to be outstanding and convincing witnesses to history. They were made of a durable, non-corrosive metal (bronze, silver, gold), and there were  plenty of them because everybody used them. Among these coins there are many with the swastika, and among them the right-facing swastika  is often the most common … It is extremely unlikely that the ancient  republics and monarchies responsible for their massive minting wanted to  wish themselves misfortune by placing “negative” pre-Nazi swastikas on their own coins …

the oldest known swastika (Mezin, around 10,000 BC)the oldest known swastika (Mezin, around 10,000 BC)

If we only had to start from a distant period of about 12 thousand years ago(presumably, because the dating may not necessarily be entirely correct) since the inception of the oldest known  swastika  motif on mammoth  ivory found in the village of Mezin near Kiev in the Ukraine, then it was a very long time to develop the most diverse interpretations of  swastika in history and in different regions of the world. We do not know who was the first to have drawn, painted, sculpted or carved a swastika. On the whole, however, it certainly did not have all the meaning known today at that starting point. It would be hard to imagine that the first person would be able to endow it with all meanings at once. Is the theme from Mezin only a decorative motif, or was it perhaps already interpreted in some other way? Was the swastika a talisman for good luck, and then the sign of inner peace? Did it first symbolize the sun, and only then the moon? Which therefore of these (and other) meanings is the “true”  meaning, at issue in the debate? Is then the meaning which the swastika has gradually gained in recent history (since the nineteenth century), as a symbol of Indo-European, European (Aryan) cultures,  “false” simply because the unknown creator of the work of art from Mezin probably did not have the “Indo –European peoples” in mind? Had the moon turned out to have been symbolized by the swastika before the sun, would the swastika as a symbol of the sun  become therefore “not true”? And in that case should one then also try to  “redeem the swastika”, to “recover swastika” or “to restore its true meaning”?

a non-Nazi swastika (K.R.I.T. automobile company badge, USA)
...and a Nazi one (NSDAP party badge)

The current discussion about the swastika is dominated largely by political considerations. This has its drawbacks, but it also has its advantages. Because perhaps nothing stimulates the debate and attracts interest to the subject of controversy as politics. It is also an increasingly recognized fact  that  Hitler did not “ruin” the swastika and that he had no chance of it even if he wanted to achieve it. But still this simple fact has to gradually pierce through the wall of misunderstanding, even among many of the current “defenders” of the swastika who promote its “recovery”. This writer had the opportunity to find that out on a “swastika-saving” blog, where a link to his article “Did Hitler ‘ruin’ the Swastika?” and the earlier comments, on which that writing was based, were repeatedly removed from there by the ” Admin ” on the pretext of “supporting Hitler and the Nazis”, although that “admin”  often complained himself about the so-called “political correctness”. Whether in such cases we have just to do with  a misunderstanding or a fear of violation of a sort of “taboo”, let  such  admins  settle individually on their own. Certainly their reason is a political one which they admit directly or at least  indirectly.

In 1786 an Englishman, Sir William Jones, confirmed the similarity of the languages ​​of Sanskrit, Greek and Latin (and research on these languages ​​goes back to the sixteenth century), which in turn gave rise to the term “Indo-European” in the first 20years of the nineteenth century. In the meantime, archeology has grown and it has helped in linking the swastika of whole ethnic groups and cultures with common roots. The most prominent archaeologist of the nineteenth century, the German Heinrich Schliemann, after having discovered the ruins of Troy and after having  found  a large number of swastikas there, became interested in this symbol, and after consultations with leading scientists he concluded that the swastika “is an important religious symbol of our remote ancestors”, who he acknowledged as ancestors of modern Indo-European peoples.

Thus, the swastika was gradually taking on a meaning – in the light of advancing research – as a characteristic sign of entire huge communities. It gained this meaning because wherever the Indo-European  people (and nations)  have traditionally lived, there, sooner or later,  the swastika was found. In this way, the swastika became again a really significant symbol. With time passing it began to be used  as an emblem of new movements and organizations, both political and nonpolitical. This process will be presented in detail in separate articles. Here we will limit ourselves only to to one example.

The original symbol of Gymnasts' Society founded by F.L. Jahn
...and the symbol with 4 letters "F" formed into a swastika

On November 14th 1810, during the occupation ofPrussia andGermany by the armies of Napoleonic France, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn founded the first public German Gymnasts’ Society. He merged the idea of ​​physical fitness with the idea of a ​​national liberation struggle. This combination of ideas also appeared later in other parts of Europe, including the lands of partitionedPoland, where he founded Gymnastic Society “Sokół” (i.e. “Falcon”). The symbol of the company founded by F.L. Jahn  was a cross made ​​of four letters “F”, as shown. These were the letters of the password, “Frish, Fromm, Frölich, Frei” (ie: “Fresh, pious, joyful, free”).  Soon, these letters were arranged in a right-facing swastika as shown above.

If, therefore, in about the year 1920 Hitler´s party wanted to choose a symbol, which would in any way be historically  representative of the Aryan race, while also having historical roots in Germany herself, one really must admit that from their point of view, they could not have chosen better.

In other words, if they chose another Aryan symbol, the choice probably would not be so accurate.
Quite another issue is the interpretation given by the Nazis to this sign. To quote Hitler in his description of the elements and colours of the NSDAP flag:

“In red we see the social idea of ​​the movement, in white nationalist, in the swastika the mission of fighting for the victory of Aryan man and at the same time the victory of the idea of ​​creative work, which as such always has been and will remain anti-Semitic”  (“Mein Kampf”)

This interpretation was new and did not appear earlier. And it was strictly a political interpretation. It was a departure from the previous interpretation of the symbol as a characteristic of cultural formation and race-ethnicity.

early Medieval (Merovingian?) coin with a swastika

The current current far greater use and significance of swastikas in the East compared with the West  is not merely the result of the decrease in use in the West since World War 2. The disparity existed long before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Swastikas in the East are deeply rooted  as important symbols in the Eastern religions. In the West it had not been so already for many centuries.

If they ever had any religious significance it was removed during the Christian centuries, when Christianity was wiping, often brutally, all non-Abrahamic religions from the face of the earth. It was simultaneously borrowing a lot from them, but more in terms of whatever symbolism corresponded with its theology in terms of the practice of certain cults. The swastika has never occupied such a position in the Christian religion which it had in  Hinduism or Buddhism. Hence its meaning had been lost completely, or only partly preserved. Then, too, our silent and many “witnesses of history” in the form of coins began to “keep quiet” about the swastika, which only occasionally shows upon them – though it was not abandoned  as a decorative motif elsewhere. If at that time any cross appears on coins, then it is mainly the one representing Christianity. And this “silence” of coins continued in the Renaissance. And as a matter of fact it was only from the late eighteenth century onwards, that a gradual interest in the swastika appears again. Over the next  century this symbol indeed made  a stunning career. It reached its zenith of course in the Third Reich through its elevation to the absolute extreme omnipresence. It appeared as a sign of various public institutions, was in a state emblem and on the national flag (a bit like at the time of the kingdom of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka two and a half thousand years ago …), on the banners and military decorations, on badges  and on commemorative medals and medals of civilian organizations.

Ehrenkreuz der Deutschen Mutter (1938)
an early badge of the Hitler Youth

And its presence  on coins exceeded anything in this regard that Indian, Greek,  Parthian, Phoenician and Roman antiquity had to offer … One can even figuratively say that in the Third Reich the swastika  marched into almost every aspect of life. And its position would probably still be relatively high today (after all), had it  not been for World War 2, which together with the defeat of the Reich resulted in the loss of much of its popularity, especially since it was very often and persistently equated it with war crimes of the defeated, but in the Third Reich it represented many different things simultaneously.

The only difference between the actually existing Western and Nazi swastikas, when it comes to its looks, is that the Nazi swastika was usually set at an angle of 45 degrees, while the previous ones were set straight. Usually, because there were some exceptions, such as the two presented here, the early Hitler Youth  badge  (the initials “DJ” mean “Deutsche Jugend”) and the “Ehrenkreuz der Deutschen  Mutter”,  established on 16 December 1938, which have their swastikas set straight, not at an angle. Similarly, there were exceptions among the old  swastikas that were sometimes also set at an angle, as evidenced by the  decorative details of some elements of ceramics or some coins.

ancient Greek silver coin with a diagonal swastika

These are some of the more  important points of the background of current debates about the swastika. They will be presented here in more detail in subsequent articles. The swastika itself has a future no matter how long the debates will be dragged on.  Even if they were to never end, they are unable to do the swastika any serious harm. It could have been much more harmed in the Middle Ages. Then the knowledge of the past, even the most rudimentary, was far lower than today.

Illiteracy prevailed. Most people could not even read the Bible, though it  formed the very base of their religious and philosophical system. The different  regions of the world remained cut off from each other. The former illiteracy of European societies would give a better chance of ruin of any historical  symbol than all the combinedefforts made for this purpose (consciously or unconsciously) in our contemporary times.

But even the Middle Ages would have had no lasting success in this field. Sooner or later  the remains of old buildings, mosaics, pottery and coins would have been discovered, just as has happened. After centuries of expulsion of the symbol to the primarily ornamental function, its Renaissance and subsequent periods in history only provided more evidence of its existence. Furthermore the process of its continuous re-interpretation is far from over. And the fact that it has many meanings and has had a continuous presence on various continents and is known to many peoples and races, will ensure its future probably to no lesser extent than is the case of  major contemporary religious symbols.

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